The Twilight Zone
Or, the curious case of the missing centenarians
By: Ching-Li Tor | Aug 19, 2010 | Issue: 856 | One Comment | 2,776 views

Illustration by Enrique Balducci

The Twilight Zone
Ching-Li Tor is a freelance journalist from Singapore living and working in Tokyo, with a patent for the Rent-A-Centenarian service

I’ve got what I think is a can’t-miss business proposal. You know how in Japan you can rent anything from a primped pooch for a walk on the beach to a decoy date to keep the worried parents at bay? What this rapidly aging country needs next, counterintuitive as it may sound, is a Rent-a-Centenarian service. ¥100 shops are so last century—enter the 100-Years-and-Up Rental Service, ideal for busy families who haven’t realized that their centenarian relative has been missing from the dining table for, say, the past 20 years, but suddenly need to present a suitably aged person to the local authorities to keep the pension payments coming. After all, newborn babies and wrinkled seniors all pretty much look alike, don’t they?

Indeed, forget about Japan’s lost decade—or, rather, decades. Japan’s lost centenarians seem to be the real pressing problem. At the time of writing, at least 71 senior citizens who have hit the big 1-0-0 have gone missing in Japan. Local authorities apparently find it challenging to keep track of the whereabouts of these celebrated centenarians, who are either a) being mysteriously spirited away, b) willfully avoiding detection by moving to another prefecture on a whim and an electric powered wheelchair, or c) locking themselves in their rooms to attain enlightenment as a “living Buddha” (read: dead, dried and mummified).

With more revelations of missing centenarians unraveling daily from Hokkaido to Fukuoka, Japan’s literal skeletons in the closet have been unceremoniously wrested out of their resting places and—to everyone’s discomfort—thrust into the public eye.

Repulsed by the mysterious, morbid and tax dollar-sapping situation, outraged citizens and the scandal-mongering media have begun pointing fingers at slack municipal governments for not keeping better tabs on their elderly residents. Local officials, in turn, are frantically trying to arrange face-to-face meetings with their centenarians, whose numbers tally around 40,400 nationwide.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan pointed to the erosion of social ties for the missing elderly. “I presume this is because human bonds are weakening,” he told the Diet recently. “Society as a whole tends to sever human relationships.” Indeed, some 2.5 million senior citizens in Japan’s version of The Twilight Zone live alone, and 40 percent of Japanese over 60 die a lonely death.

But the phenomenon of phantom parents and pension payees also points to a deeper social issue: the erosion of ethics and morals in a supposedly tight-knit society that prides itself on self-regulation and social conscience. The roots of this problem can likely be traced to harsh cost-of-living concerns in a feeble economy, prompting people to make a living from the dead. This gives new and grim meaning to the term “golden years.”

Ironically, news reports of missing centenarians surfaced at around the same time the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare proudly proclaimed that Japanese women had, for the 25th consecutive year, come out top again in world life expectancies, with an average lifespan of 86.44 years. Life expectancy rose for men as well, to 79.59 years. But these numbers may have to be adjusted downwards if more of these centenarians remain… “lost.”

According to the same study, suicide rates among elderly men are on the rise. (One wonders if there’s any correlation with the longer lives of overly genki Japanese obachan.) Suicide, crime and alcoholism among the elderly have become growing problems because of low incomes, unstable employment—and, apparently, young people capriciously occupying priority seats for the elderly. A 66-year-old Nagasaki woman was recently arrested for assaulting a teenage student with an umbrella—and breaking his nose—for sitting in a so-called “silver seat.”

The hitherto blasé attitude of the local authorities regarding the living situations, literally, of their aged wards is a slap in the face to the only culture in the world that honors its elderly with a public holiday: Respect for the Aged Day in September. But perhaps there is a silver lining: it could be renamed Search for the Aged Day, with a nationwide hunt for the missing centenarians (collect them all!). Which sounds like yet another potential business opportunity for the Rent-A-Centenarian service.



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  • Charltzy

    Karl Pilkington was right!

    (Like 1% of the people reading this will get that reference… :-) )